THE ORIGINS OF THE PROCESSION
At the end of the eleventh century, the city of Tournai is a cultural and trade centre thanks to its situation along the river Scheldt ,the presence of rich grazing land and the chalk underground. This is where the pest breaks out. The epidemic is so serious that it has left its mark not only in Tournai but also in Flanders and Brabant. That is when Bishop Radbod appears, arriving from Noyon where he has his main residence. This pontiff is also a preacher : He proposes to the people to wear penitent's garments, to fast on a Friday and to pray to Our Lady the day after, 14th September, feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The prayer the bishop proposes is a procession around the city threatened with death.
The congregation will commend itself to the Saviour's Mother and carry the relics of their patron saints. They will walk in procession with the precious shrines kept in the Cathedral, which had contained the remains of bishop Eleuthère and other saints for about thirty years. The prayers of the crowd are answered and the plague comes to a halt. In the aftermath, Bishop Radbold proposes to renew that gesture as a sign of thankfulness. Some historians claim that the plague that hit Tournai was not the pest but poisoning due to rye ergot , called ergotism.Whether pest or ergotism, the disease vanished thanks to the prayers and the procession dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Ever since 1092 Tournai's Great Procession is celebrated every year by way of thanks. In the 13th and 14th centuries, more than thirty-two towns sent a delegation. But the most brilliant embassy came, beyond any doubt , from Ghent, capital city of the county.
A that time three processions went through the city and its surroundings, during the night and the morning of 14th September, the day of the Exaltation of the Cross. This tradition was stopped neither by wars nor by the French Revolution. Only in the year 1566 did the Procession not go out because of the iconoclasts occupying the city. In the 17th century, Contrareformation allows the cult of the Virgin Mary to revive. Ever since the pilgrimage has taken place only intra muros.
In 1892 grand ceremonies commemorate the 800 th anniversary of the event. Bruges, Ghent, Lille and Soignies send important delegations. In 1992, when the 900th anniversary was celebrated, it was just as brilliant.
Thanks to its fine organization, its beauty and its incomparable richness, the Great Procession is an event that reaches far beyond Tournai, to the whole of Belgium and even abroad. It is in Belgium, as in Europe, one of the oldest surviving traditions.